One of my favourite characters in Christian history is Billy Bray (1794-1868), the unconventional Cornish Evangelist. The story of his life and activity is well worth a read. It is both poignant and amusing, containing numerous humorous and moving anecdotes. Born in 1794 in the village of Twelveheads, Cornwall, Billy was the eldest of three children born to William Bray, a tin miner, and his wife Ann. William Bray died when his children were young and they were cared for by their grandfather, who was a pious Methodist. After leaving school, Billy Bray worked as a tin miner himself, in Cornwall and, for a short time, also in Devon. In 1821 he married Joanna (a lapsed Methodist), and they eventually had seven children. During this early period of his life Billy was well-known for both being a drunkard and prone to riotous behaviour. In 1823 he had a close escape from a mining accident and began to ponder the meaning and purpose of his life. He began reading John Bunyan’s book, Visions of Heaven and Hell, and as a result committed his life to Jesus Christ in the November of that same year. His life was immediately transformed to such an extent that his wife also re-committed her life to Christ. Billy attached himself to a group of Methodists known as ‘Bible Christians’ and became a well-known but unconventional preacher – his sermons being enlivened by spontaneous outbursts of singing and dancing. Billy did not restrict his activities to preaching. He raised two orphans along with his own children, was generous in giving help to other people, and also raised enough funds to build three new Methodist chapels in the area where he lived.
One of my favourite stories concerning Billy Bray (relevant to the First Sunday in Advent this year) is concerning his attempt to evangelise a certain village, well-known for its hard-hearted attitude towards the Gospel and the claims of Jesus Christ on their lives. They refused to give Billy a hearing so … never one to give up easily … Billy waited until midnight and then ran through the village ringing a large hand-bell and shouting (he had a very loud voice apparently): ‘Fire! Fire!’ The whole village turned out in response to the alarm call and, when they had all gathered on the village green, they turned to Billy and asked: ‘Where is the fire? Where is the fire?’ ‘Hell fire!’ Billy responded … and preached the Gospel to them! One would have thought that such a tactic would have been counter-productive … its probably not one we would employ today in order to reach people for Christ … but apparently quite a few of Billy’s hearers were actually converted as a result!
This coming Sunday, the last Sunday in November, is the First Sunday in Advent. Advent is that Season in the Christian Year, comprising of the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day itself, during which the Church seeks to prepare its people for Christmas. It is a time when we are reminded that, with the birth of Jesus Christ that first Christmas Day, God changed everything – for us and for the world! The Incarnation – the stupendous act in which God took human form in the Person of that tiny baby born in Bethlehem’s manger – is indeed ‘the hinge of history’ for humanity, for the world, for the entire universe! We can easily miss the tremendous significance of this event amidst all the clamour and commercialism of the Christmas season. It is for this reason that the Church attempts to make use of the Advent Season to help prepare us, to help us to understand, the vital significance of Christmas.
Each of the four Sundays in Advent have a different theme … ‘Hope’, ‘Love’, ‘Joy’, ‘Peace’ … although each Sunday is often given a particular ‘sub-theme’ based on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for the particular Sunday in question. Thus this year (2015), although the overall theme for the First Sunday in Advent remains as ‘Hope’, the sub-theme is ‘Be Alert!’ Traditionally, on the First Sunday in Advent, the Church reminds itself not only of Christ’s First Advent or Coming, but also of the fact that he will one day return again – his Second Advent or Coming! When Jesus comes again it will not be in order to be born in a manger or die on a cross … but as Lord of lords, and King of kings, coming with all his angelic hosts, in order to conclude this stage in our world order, to judge the living and the dead, and to take those who are truly his to be with him in Glory!
The Gospel Reading for this First Sunday in Advent is taken from the end of Luke’s Gospel, and reflects the exhortation of the adult Jesus for us to be ready for his return … because it will happen at a time when it is least expected … rather than a passage from earlier in Luke reflecting on something to do with Jesus’ birth. In this passage Jesus tells us that immediately prior to his Second Advent: ‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Luke 21:25-28).
Luke goes on to explain that because Jesus’ teaching here was couched in mystery he went on illustrate the essence of what he was attempting to teach them through the use of story drawn from nature: ‘He told them this parable: “Look at the fig-tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”‘ (Luke 21:29-30). Just as the first signs of Spring – the early tinge of green on the trees – awake us to the fact that Summer is coming, so these climatic events in the world of nature and humankind warn us that the end-time is almost upon us!
According to Luke, Jesus went on to underline his earlier word and illustration by warning his hearers not to be distracted, by either ‘eat, drink and be merry’ escapism, nor mind-numbing anxiety at the state of the world, from getting our priorities right! ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”‘ (Luke 21:31-36). Seemingly, being spiritually distracted and deadened by ‘the dread asbestos of other things’ (as one writer once put it) was not only a 21st century problem?
So Jesus’ exhortation to us to ‘Be Alert!’, which we reflect on during this First Sunday in Advent in 2015, is a salutary reminder to us of the importance of getting our priorities in life right! But is it really a ‘sign of hope’? At first glance this Gospel Reading seems rather negative, driving us to despair rather than inspiring hope? And yet it is actually full of hope! ‘Hope’ in primitive Greek (the language of the New Testament) is very different to our English language idea of ‘hope’? When we speak of ‘hope’ we often mean ‘fingers crossed’, ‘hope against hope’ type of thing! When the New Testament speaks of ‘hope, however, it is a much more positive thing. It means ‘absolute certainty’, ‘a guaranteed future’, etc. Thus for the Christian, the Second Coming of Christ is not something to be feared but to be welcomed. It brings with it a righting of everything that has been wrong, and end to all suffering and pain, a re-uniting with our loved ones in Christ, and an eternity spent in the immediate Presence of the Living God! The promise of Christ’s Return is also a message of hope for all those who have not entrusted their lives to Christ because it heralds the fact that there is still time, still an opportunity to turn back to him, to commit our lives to him, to discover the real meaning and purpose to life – something that can only be found in a living relationship with Jesus Christ! For the Apostle Peter, the thing that he was most grateful to God for saving him from (in and through Jesus Christ) was not primarily saving him from the power of Satan, sin, or death … it was for saving him from an ’empty or wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18).
One of the most striking things about Billy Bray was his continual excitement and joy at his salvation. Just like today, many religious people Billy saw were often gloomy and sorrowful. ‘If they were truly born-again,’ Billy thought, ‘you would never have known it by their lives!’ One of his most endearing features (or most annoying, depending on your outlook) was that Billy Bray was always smiling, singing, and shouting praises to God. ‘I can’t help praising God’ he insisted, ‘As I go along the street I lift up one foot, and it seems to say, “Glory!” .. and as I lift up the other foot it seems to say “Hallelujah!” and so all the time I am walking along it is forever “Glory! Hallelujah!”, “Glory! Hallelujah!” ‘If they were to put me in a barrel,’ he once said, ‘I would shout “Glory!” through the bung-hole!’
At the end of Billy Bray’s life, his doctor was present at his bedside. With little tact, he told Billy Bray that he was going to die. Billy, considering his words for a moment, and then responded, ‘Glory! Glory, be to God! I shall soon be in heaven!’ Then he asked the doctor a final question, ‘When I get up there, shall I give them your compliments, doctor, and tell them you will be coming too?’ This really touched the hard-hearted doctor’s heart. Even near death, Billy’s joy was a powerful witness to the love of Christ. His dying word was, ‘Glory!’ Yet right before he died, he said of death, ‘What, me fear death? Lost? Why, my Saviour conquered death. If I was to go down to hell I would shout “Glory!” Glory, to my blessed Jesus until I made the bottomless pit ring again, and that miserable old Satan would say, “Billy, Billy, this is no place for thee: get thee back!” Then up to heaven I should go, shouting “Glory! Glory! Praise the Lord!”‘